June 10, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Speaking the Irish in Baltimore: Then and Now

The City of Baltimore’s population at the time of the Great Hunger shocks the modern observer. It was ranked the second largest city in America in 1850, with New York on top. A fair amount of immigration had already happened, with a major wave of desperate Irish escaping the horrors of their homeland any way they could. American cities received them, including the deep-water ports of Baltimore.

The city was a further distance from Ireland than Canada, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, yet Baltimore drew well due to abundant work and a thriving Catholic community. A considerable number continued westward via rail, rather than remaining in Baltimore and Cumberland, Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia received and employed many thousands of Irish.

More than 15,000 native born Irish resided in Baltimore in 1870, and their presence, while not what other cities could brag about, assured the continuance and emphasis of Irish distinctives within the immigrant communities in which they lived and thrived. St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations of the day were described in many news articles of the time, and churches and workplaces of the city had an abundant Irish presence.

These immigrant Irish sought to restore to themselves the many cultural icons that were robbed from them by English authorities. Many had lost their ancestral lands centuries earlier, and their religion and way of life had been made illegal through the Penal Laws and systematic discrimination by Britain.

Many moved to the West of Ireland to moderate the effects of these oppressive acts, and were able to maintain a bit of Irish culture among their own…on the quiet.

Patrick Kenney (pictured) lived among the Connacht Irish, in County Galway. He and his family were among Baltimore’s Irish-born population in 1870. Like so many, he emigrated from a land where even the language of the Irish people had been taken from them. He grew up in a mostly bilingual country, where in 1841 eighty percent of a population of 8.1 million could speak both Irish and English, while twenty percent spoke Irish exclusively. At the time of his immigration to Baltimore in 1853, only 300,000 monoglot Gaelic speakers remained in Ireland.

Irish language instruction was absent from Irish schools by 1870, and the descent of the language seemed to be headed towards oblivion. Ireland had a rally instead.

Considerable forces fought for land rights and the expansion of cultural expression. The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, and the playing of traditional Irish sports flourished as a result. Variant forms of “Land League’ efforts sought to return Irish farmers to ownership of the lands they worked, and efforts to support this vital change were expended both in Ireland and America.

The Gaelic League was formed in 1893 by Celtic scholar Eoin MacNeill. Many came to believe that maintaining a people group could only truly be accomplished by the preservation of its language and customs. The League was the center of these efforts, and had 107 branches by 1899. These expanded to almost 400 by 1902.

The Irish of America were under no strictures by church or government, and bore their Irish names and spoke their native language without fear of powerful men shouting “treason”. Celtic revivals had started by 1878, when Irish-English public schools were established in New England cities, if not Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun newspaper opposed the effort in the city, asserting that an Irish-English school should not be formed at taxpayer expense, just to teach “another” foreign language.

Churches were a different matter, and the Very Rev. Canon McGee of Castlebar, County Mayo preached in Irish at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on December 12, 1880. His sermon drew native Irish from every part of the city, and was well attended.

He returned to do the same for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on March 17, 1881. After celebrating the Mass that morning, he returned in the afternoon to preach a panegyric on the patron saint at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point district. Native Irish attended in abundance, and many heard their first sermon in the old tongue since leaving Ireland.

The Dublin Gaelic Society flourished in America in the late 1870’s, with 20 affiliated organizations in major American cities. It sought to keep the old sod in the hearts and minds of native Irish, and also advocated for the placement of scholars in major universities.

Another significant organization was the Gaelic League. Baltimore had its own chapter, known as the Irish Historical Society. They were led by Rev. Dr. Richard Henebry, a Gaelic professor at Catholic University (D.C.) The division sent representatives to the League’s national convention in New York in 1899. They also established ongoing classes in the Gaelic language, led by Professor J.W. Kehoe.

Shane McShane is pictured above. he studied the Irish language under the tutelage of Eoin MacNeill, and lived in West Baltimore, having a home among the "Mill Hill Deck of Cards" houses on Wilkens Ave. He worked as a clerk for the B & O Railroad, and was an Irish musician. McShane advocated for Irish independence in the editorial section of the Baltimore Sun on several occasions.

Baltimore has maintained its place and prominence as an Irish cultural center through many organizations and activities. The Irish Railroad Workers Museum has the special privilege of presenting our immigrant ancestors in America’s only original 19th century, urban, working-class house museum.

We are pleased to present the greater Irish culture as part of our presentation of the simple Irish who came just to survive, and eventually built a nation. The Irish language is one facet of the culture we celebrate at the Museum. Our place within a vibrant Irish community has led to many valuable relationships, including “Irish Language Learners” and its founder, Seán Ó Léanacháin (pictured in our introductory heading with his family). We are proud to announce that we began our 9th and 10th language courses in the Summer of 2021, and look forward to continuing them into the future (will be announced on our web site).

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